E-waste is an untapped source of rare earth materials. As the world grapples with supply chain challenges and geopolitical concerns that stymie the timely flow of commodities, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the supply of many rare earth metals and materials is unsustainable. These materials can be found in a wide range of products, including those that we discard on a daily basis. E-waste is a great supply of valuable metals, therefore e-waste recycling needs to be drastically increased.
The Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom (via bbc.com) is launching a campaign to raise awareness about the unsustainable nature of mining the elements that go into the millions of pieces of consumer technology. These metals and minerals frequently wind up in landfills, possibly contaminating the environment. However, this garbage is also an untapped supply of the elements used to create it in the first place, necessitating recycling.
“Our tech consumption patterns remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw materials we require,” said Professor Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, while “continuing to compound environmental damage.” According to a BBC report, the total volume of wasted electronics in the globe reached 57 million tons in 2021 and is expanding at a rate of two million tons per year.
Gallium, indium, yttrium, and tantalum are just a few of the materials that could run short in the next decades. Medical devices, electronics, batteries, and solar panels are all made with them. These are just a few instances of the things we take for granted, and they are products that will only grow in popularity. It should go without saying that adequate quantities of these elements are essential for a future civilization free of fossil fuels.
The demand for environmentally friendly production is also growing. “There is an untapped’mine’ of precious metals in the drawers and storage of just about every home,” Elizabeth Ratcliffe of the Royal Society of Chemistry told BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science.
Many customers are unsure what to do with their outdated electronics. Many wind up in landfills, but if a global effort were made to make it simple to recycle outdated electronics, many more people would take advantage of the opportunity. Drop-off boxes or e-waste recycling centers, for example, would reduce potentially harmful landfill while also providing businesses with alternate supplies of otherwise scarce precious metals.
The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the fragility of supply lines. The supply of nickel, a critical component of vehicle batteries, is constrained as Ukrainian production comes to a standstill. Neon supplies were also impacted. But what if you could get nickel out of old batteries? It appears that firms have an opportunity to acquire resources that are only going to become rarer and more expensive to extract.
We can all help by being tech consumers. Think about how you can recycle your old phone or PC component instead of throwing it away the next time you upgrade your phone or buy a new PC component. You’d be helping the environment while also contributing to sustainable production, which could lead to more cheap items in the future due to increased availability of the materials used. Win win.